THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent comments about payments to the Wagner group was “like direct evidence” that Wagner’s mercenaries were an illegal arm of the Russian army in the war, Ukraine’s top prosecutor told Reuters this week.
Putin said last week that Wagner and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, had received almost $2 billion from Russia in the past year.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin made the comments in The Hague where he was attending the opening of the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression on Monday.
Kostin said his office had identified Prigozhin as a suspect during investigations this year and that Wagner fighters were responsible for some of the most serious war crimes since the Feb. 24, 2022 invasion.
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While Russia attempts to distinguish between Wagner forces and its military, Putin’s comments last week about state budget spending on Wagner was “like direct evidence that they are not only de facto, but probably, illegally, also are part of the Russian army.” The use of mercenaries by states in armed conflict is banned under the Geneva Conventions.
Among more than 93,000 incidents of potential war crimes Kostin’s office was investigating were many atrocities Wagner forces committed, Kostin said.
They are “among the most severe crimes against our civilians and our prisoners of war,” Kostin said.
The Wagner Group poses a threat not only to Ukraine, but to peace and security in many countries, including in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, he said.
Kostin appealed to allies, including the U.S. and Britain, to classify Wagner as a terrorist organisation so it can be prosecuted and its assets frozen.
“Prigozhin is already a suspect in criminal proceedings in Ukraine, but the main thing is to stop the activity of such groups,” he said.
(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Josie Kao)
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